Mary Pickering's Auguste Comte

Jean-Claude Wartelle

A) An objective report
Thirty years of work and more than 2000 pages, myriad of notes, Comte's intellectual biography is now complete, large and exhaustive. The title itself might be enlarged with the words and sentimental biography, an occurrence quite necessary for a man who promoted the loving sentiments in the second part of his life. And so, we learn a lot on his two "wives" lives and minds, the old one, repulsive and scorned as the "wicked" spouse, Caroline Massin and the young one, the frail but ambitious femme de lettres de Vaux, both independent minded but admiring his culture and money dependent from him. The book would easily bear another enlargement : it is indeed an approach of a Paris intellectual sub-world within the first half of the 19th century. Ignored from the circles of the Great Nobility (where Chateaubriand pontificated), barely known from the romanticist Salons visited by Delacroix, this third circle counted dozens of groups gathering students, teachers, artists, doctors, scientists, businessmen and craftsmen : one of them became the positivist group, of which the book offers an extensive and much detailed series of portraits (90 disciples studied after the Index).
As an intellectual biography the book explores keenly the origin and surroundings of the philosophical school and due to the author's thorough investigations into the museum closets, Vol 1 had the originality to show the connexions with the German philosophy (chapters Herder, Kant, Hegel) something that Comte and after him French historians were usually oblivious. The book makes also the point on the heirloom from Saint Simon, and subsequently on the rivalry with the Saint-Simonians, matters that made Comte and his coterie angrily uncomfortable. Other rivalries include the various socialist schools particularly Charles Fourier and disciples, target of the Master's permanent wrath. A permanent antagonism is frequently mentioned, which put up Comte against Victor Cousin's eclecticism. Famous university teacher who gained political responsibility under the July monarchy (period of Comte's redaction of his philosophy) Cousin's eclecticism cultivated the romantic inclination for the building of everyone's personality, developed the psychological introspection, attempted a balanced synthesis of the various knowledge media and found that the parliamentary monarchy was the best way to reconcile the ancient and the post revolutionary France. A malevolent sophist through Comte's vision.
The philosophy (which remains the most studied part of Comte's work) was analysed in Vol I.(p. 561 to 690). Ms Pickering makes clear its originality as a philosophy putting history of science ahead of the history of civilisations and using a method where historicity stands as the spinal cord of every science. She makes clear also the numerous deficiencies, mistakes and errors of this encyclopaedic review. Comte's main and famous invention is the hierarchy of sciences with the dialectical corrective principle that any of the six inventoried branches will be tied to the acquisitions of its preceding sister. The most innovative parts are relative to the fifth (biology) and sixth (sociology) sciences. Biology was at the time in full expansion, inducing a lot of hypothesis in which Comte took part, making several blunders ; sociology, the privileged child of his creative thought, was still to be created. As an optimist thinker, the father predicted that in its static part it will establish a scientific and thorough analysis of human societies and in its dynamic part, placed within the comtean "law" of the three intellectual stages of Humanity, it is presented as a way to pacify societies and the world : no more civil or international wars, no slave trade, no colonisation. For Comte as for the young Stuart Mill, science had to be utilitarian. Asserting a few fair perspectives for the future but without elaborating the very contents of the new science, Comte fell at once into the trap to tie sociology to the exacting mission to drive Humanity toward a positivist golden age. He assumed that the positivist direction of the world could be attained during his own life. "The utopian nature of Comte's thought is evident" (I, 669).
Initially foreseen with two volumes, Ms Pickering's work jumps to three in the final edition of 2009, due to the enlargement of her knowledge. Vol. 2 covers ten years from 1842 to 1851, a period of deep mutation in the life and psyche for the man and for his country. The man lost his official duties in the Ecole Polytechnique, became estranged from his regular wife, fell in love with a young femme de lettres who at last accepted his love, but badly sick and badly cared to, died inside his arms. The country knew a tumultuous year 1848 after the fall of the July monarchy : Republic and utopia held first the reins but a large popular insurrection exploded thereafter in Paris and was harshly crushed by the new government. At year's end Napoleon's nephew was elected President. Very profuse, meticulous and sensitive in its approaches of persons, Vol. 2 develops two important evolutions of the philosopher, first the relations with Stuart Mill (II, 70-113) where the former friendship disappeared due to doctrinal and personal reasons and second the early developments of the Religion of Humanity which were spurned by the death of his "angelic" companion and by the spiritual ebullition of 1848. Ms Pickering insists on the leader's ideological navigation between Right and Left, that could be translated as a tactical search of a way between "Ordre et Progrès".
Vol. 3 presents the philosopher's six final years (1852-1857). Positivism assumed itself as an established religion over which the initiator enjoyed the flamboyant title of Great Priest of Humanity. This religion expressed more and more its defiance toward the established scientists and even toward the pretensions of science itself. Along the 19th century, following Littré's strong reserves on Comte's deviations, History purported that this evolution was a negligible accessory of his philosophical work. Ms Pickering held, like most 20th century historians for a valuable continuity and so she detailed the philosophical framework of this religion within three chapters. She made also an important exploration (p. 483-513) through the Synthèse subjective, a book disdained for a long time by readers where she perceives a third career for a man who aspired to be a modern Dante : after philosophy and religion, he wanted to explore his capacity for a new poetry, the poetry of science where for instance prime numbers would ignite the benevolence of the cosmos (p. 505-507). Along his last six years the Great Priest marked also his deep predilection for authoritarian policies making ideological courtship to Napoleon 3rd, the new Empereur des Français, and even to the repressive tsar Nicolas 1st of Russia. Forging a paternalistic model of society where women and proletarians would be asked to give their advices but in fact were deprived of real power, he assumed that positivism was the best bulwark against communism.
In spite of its large spectrum of oddness, this ideology crosses some modern speculations, showing sympathy for fetishism [reflecting his fears about modern society and himself (!) III, 258], praising the fecundity of utopia, his most famous prediction being the coming of the Virgin Mother and asserting the operational possibilities of language : to be followed, a philosophy or a religion has to create and impose its own basket of neologisms and to carefully choose the names of the tenants of its mythology, here called Great Being, Great Fetish and Great Milieu. Among other imperatives of the positivist thought, was a collective moral tribute to the past and to the dead. Among its rituals Humanity established the dire respect to one's last wills : two years before he died, the new Prophet wrote a testament which not surprisingly made intellectual egotism interfere with bizarre worshipping wishes (to stop the hearse for a while in front of Church Saint Paul) and a deeply encroached hate for his legal wife, now under the protection of the ex-disciple Littré, both nominally excluded to attend his funerals. For himself the Great Priest was sure to remain into the Annals of History, the sole immortality available within this religion. He left his sacred home and his thick written corpus as a double matter of worship and culture. To ensure that his life might be thoroughly studied he left also precise documents from his day-to-day activity (his whole mail for instance).
Ms Pickering ends her book by a balanced judgment. Two references are coming below. The order of the pages gives an advantage to the positive appreciation but one remains free to change the order of reading :
A negative opinion can be found III p 590 : "In sum one could argue that various components of Comte's system - his stress on unanimity, submission, recognition of superiors, meritocracy, hierarchy, the weight of traditions, the limitation of reading material, dictatorship and the concentration of wealth in the hands of some enlightened industrialists put a damper on liberty besides shutting the door completely on equality."
A positive counterpart can be found III p 603-604 : [Considering that humanity extended through the globe and needed to be integrated, Comte wanted to be as inclusive and universal as possible in remembering forms of cooperation. He wrote "the new philosophic regime alone can glorify simultaneously all times, all places, all social conditions and all types of cooperation whether they are public or even private". His religion was a celebration of human cooperation which he considered a reflection on our sociable nature, the foundation of practical activities and the basis of society. Even the intellect and the sentiments had to cooperate. He believed that in a scientific age there was a need for a non-transcendental religion celebrating the cooperative human spirit across time and space. Defying the oblivion of time, Comte proclaimed, "To live among the dead constitutes one of the most precious privileges of humanity"].
Would his spirits (ses mânes) agree with such a balanced intellectual biography, certainly not ; the writer being a lady would nevertheless be a minor inconvenient as the biography shows that his anti-feminist impulses were reduced after his affair with de Vaux and his intellectual esteem for Martineau or for Sarah Austin. Comte's disagreement with Ms Pickering's book would rather erupt because she is a university teacher and because her book, though non hostile, lacks to display veneration and to laud dogmatism, the main virtues of his temper. The last page of the biography recalls his proud self justification "Dogmatism is the normal state of human intelligence"
Never could this man agree with scepticism or with dialectical balance. His nature was truly that of prophets.
B) A subjective Report
made by the author of L'héritage d'Auguste Comte. Histoire de l'église positiviste (1849-1946) L'Harmattan Paris 2001.
Let us be clear. The above mentioned book is a work of Lilliputian content when compared to Ms Pickering's one. Being the author of this article, I have no pretension to be at her level and I think my book is more "un livre d'humeur" than an outstanding research.
I dare use quotations from my book because it displays the life and minding of the same person.
I propose to refer to Ms Pickering as Ms P and to myself as JW.
Both books justify themselves with an identical reference : Mentioning Stuart Mill's perplexity about writing a biographical study on Comte, Ms P writes (I, p. 691) that her book has attempted the challenging task of tracing what Comte significantly termed his "original evolution". For himself JW explains on the 4th page of the cover : "Une des originalités du livre consiste en son illustration. Soucieux des remarques de Stuart Mill sur le déficit d'humour du nouveau Grand-Prêtre français, l'auteur a tenté d'adoucir cette condamnation".
Both biographers were confronted to the thorny character of the man who formulated the necessity of altruism within the members of the human species but found insurmountable difficulties to accommodate this virtue around him. After countless quarrels and ruptures with his family, colleagues and disciples, he frequently turned to insult the persons becoming his adversaries, often adding pejorative or despicable allegations. JW écrit ainsi p.116-117 "L'altruisme comtien rayonnait impeccablement vis-à-vis des disciples déférents voire adulateurs. Les docteurs Robinet et Audiffrent louèrent la très grande bonté du maître à leur égard. Les choses se gâtaient très vite en cas de contestation ainsi que cela est apparu concernant Littré, Caroline Massin, John Stuart Mill ou même ce besogneux et obscur Célestin de Blignières, polytechnicien et officier d'artillerie rageusement radié en juin 1857 pour plate compilation de la doctrine et surtout irrespect envers le Grand Prêtre. …Si en plus venait interférer une opposition sur le comportement personnel du Maître, le bel altruisme avait tôt fait de se muer en une profonde et mesquine animosité."
Ms P uses frequently stern judgments against a man "excessively egoistic" and badly vindictive. II, 484-490 is eloquent on the similar shameful epistolary treatment devolved to his wife Caroline Massin and to his sister Alix Comte. Ms P frequently uses the words paranoia, paranoid and at last (III, 223 and 541) agrees with a sort of mental illness, now called bipolar disease. This is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, mania characterised by elation, grandiose thoughts and strange behaviour versus deep depression days marked by extreme sadness. The beginning of Ms P's last Conclusion refers also to crude madness, a frequent opinion since Comte was once cared into a lunatic asylum. She quotes a famous 19th century Oxford professor who wrote "a great man but also mad, with the idée fixe of madness … and the egotism of madness" (III, 580).
Another evidence for any reader of Comte is his propensity for utopia, something with which he felt rather proud of. His political utopia confined however with slightness of thought. Although convinced that sociology was the most complex science and posting himself as an admirer of vigilant statesmen, he envisioned an easy establishment of positivist governments throughout France, Europe and then the world without minding to any resistance or any challenge by other political or social forces. JW écrit p 41 "La hargne de l'auteur contre la métaphysique l'avait incliné à escamoter toute réflexion sur les institutions nécessaires et à imaginer un glissement quasi providentiel vers cette aurore rêvée." Ms P notes the frailty of Comte's political reflections. She writes that he looks at an easy access to supreme power because there existed "in the majority of men a disposition to obedience and a natural respect for every superiority". He claimed that people could recognize "how sweet it is to obey when they had wise and worthy guides" who would free them from the heavy responsibility of directing their own conduct" (I, 630). Surely this sort of people can exist but in small numbers in France and specially in Paris. Presenting the positivist political proposition of 1848, Ms P intervenes personally (Yet there were problems II, 330) and she forges a series of questions that remain for her with no answer or with a childish one "Assuming the world was orderly and rational he (Comte) believed that freedom of discussion and education were sufficient to ensure a smooth-running society." (II, 330).
At last positivist philosophy and religion harbour a few political threats. The future government of a positivist state would have a largely fictive separation of power, as the influential spiritual power would give determinant advices to the dictators or to the civil servants. Spiritual freedom would be at risk. Let us look to the prime area targeted by the new authorities, Instruction. What part inside the school programs and books for the philosophers, historians, poets and novelists put aside or much worse condemned by the Great Priest ? In spite of his will to respect Humanity's spiritual heirloom, the threat of censorship or at least of derogatory official comments would be reinforced. Personal freedom was itself under threat with a system which excluded responsible government and within a paternalistic society where individuals were walled up by the motto : no rights, only (elating) duties. JW writes p 378 : "Contraintes de sexe, d'âge, de statut, devoirs, discipline, abstinence, pureté, vénération, soumission, tout le vocabulaire de la morale positiviste appuyait l'ascèse, l'obéissance et la rigueur. Véritable fuite en avant vers l'étranglement de toute liberté individuelle, l'idéal ultime consistait à faire aimer la fatalité, à faire goûter le dur cheminement vers la subordination volontaire et à trouver enfin la félicité dans une digne soumission. Quoique condamnant sévèrement les aspirations théologiques et métaphysiques à l'absolu, la religion positiviste, qui d'ailleurs faisait l'éloge de Hobbes, se positionnait comme irrécusablement absolutiste. A ce prix-là on le comprend, le problème de l'anarchie individuelle serait enfin résolu."
Ms P points out the unbalanced prospect of the separation of powers (I, 670-2) : ["although he did not say which power was superior, Comte seemed to favour the spiritual power". Conceived to restore social harmony by satisfying the demands of the masses and the most active minds, this moral government would not encroach upon the political authorities, an affirmation that does not convince the historian : it didn't go far enough "in dispelling the dangers of conservatism, authoritarianism and intellectual megalomania" that were inherent in the system.]
Following Comte's evolution toward the Right and the reactionaries, Ms P remarks his constant inclination toward order and dictatorship, (he preferred a dictatorship with limited power for the people. II,330), with even an option on military structures ("he seemed to evaluate military life more favourably in some regards than industrial life… It led to developments of such sentiments as veneration for one's leaders and good habits like obedience and command". III, 255). It drives Ms P so far as to examine the protofascist elements in Comte's approach (III, 586-8) which she finds partly true before concluding that these elements should not been exaggerated, belonging to a French tradition. In any case "the proclivities of both Comte and Bonapartism were toward order, hierarchy and authority" (III, 22).
At least and to refer again to I, 630, Comte "gave the state the potential to become a dangerously strong power, one completely at odds with liberal theory and his own distrust of politics".
At books ends however, two unexpected eulogies.
JW concludes with irony on the sole subject of his book, the positivist religion, a matter that he judges rather tiny in the field of modern history (p. 380) :
"Sa religion universelle ne compta jamais que d'infimes effectifs mais son créateur avait si bien réalisé la synthèse d'une religion modèle, si joliment semé sa robe de dialectique rationnelle et d'étrangetés, si fortement abreuvé sa mythologie de clins d'œil au passé et d'assurances sur l'avenir qu'elle lui survécut plus de trois générations. Un succès relatif en somme".
Ms P acknowledges her personal disturbance with the subject of her biography, due to the complexity of his mind (III, 607) : "The twists and turns of Comte's thought surprise and bewilder us". Not displeased by the man, she puts the reader on his guard against too absolute a judgment :
"An authoritarian by nature and by his cultural formation, Comte was inclined to dogmatic thinking but he was dogmatic even about his relativism. Comte's emphasis on the role of imagination and the elusiveness of truth and his attacks on men who had faith that reason alone could solve all problems seemed to foreshadow postmodern concerns. … It is this ambiguity that makes Comte's so-called dogmatism so fascinating today. It is this ambiguity that makes his life work like a novel, whose nuances continue to be uncovered".

Cambridge University Press 3 volumes 1993-2009
By Jean-Claude Wartelle, January 2010

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